Navigate the JREF Website Join Now
James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

cold reading Among practitioners of the occult arts, there is a technique known as “cold reading.” When the performer is faced with an audience that is entirely strange to him, he uses this tried-and-true method of guessing names, relationships, events, and situations that might relate to audience members.
      The technique is differentiated from “hot reading,” which is used when the reader has obtained specific, hard information about a sitter and merely has to reveal it in a convincing manner. U.K. author/historian Ian Wilson looked into the methods of one Doris Stokes, a prominent U.K. clairaudient, and discovered that the people for whom she had produced “evidential” messages were people who had contacted her in advance of the show, had given her information, and had then been invited to attend her meeting. The information she'd received from them was then given back to them and embellished upon. Mrs. Stokes's work serves well as an excellent example of hot reading.
      Performing cold reading by throwing out common names and hoping that someone will “link” with one of them, following up by guessing or simply asking the relationship of a name that has been selected out and “accepted” by a sitter, the medium is well on the way to convincing an unwary listener that he or she has contacted the dead.
      Here's the way it's done. Suppose that a sitter has accepted the name “Mary.” The medium can now say, “I want to put Mary close to you.” What does this really mean? It's really a question as to whether or not Mary is “close to” the sitter. In the worst-case scenario, where Mary is dead, is buried in another country, was never very fond of the sitter, and was not related to him, we might uncharitably fail to recognize how close that guess was. However, a clever medium can easily rescue this seemingly bad guess by saying, “Ah, but though Mary failed to tell you of her great affection for you while she was here, she has come through tonight to remedy all that.” Though it sounds hard to believe, sitters actually accept such excuses. They are more than willing to accept. And note that the reader did not say that Mary was close to the sitter; what he said was only a comment, though certainly one that begged a response.
      The cold reading routine includes a number of excellent methods for extracting information from the sitter without it appearing as if the medium has actually asked for it. Comments like “Why is this person laughing?” or “She's shaking her head as if to say no” will often elicit a response. As with the “Mary” comment earlier, some questions don't appear to be questions at all: “I get this person in spirit” or “Somehow, I feel Jim was related to you or lived near you” are examples. Even more useful are those modifiers that generalize or fuzz up the statement so that it has a greater chance of being successful or of evoking an answer. Phrases like “I think that . . .” or “I feel as if . . .” or “I want to say . . .” and many other try-ons are used for this purpose.
      Other useful techniques: The reader can say “Yes, of course,” and then repeat to the sitter a fact that has just been given him, as if he knew it all along. Or he can say “Of course! I got that very strongly!” when he is given a fact that he didn't get at all. When he hears something from the sitter that appears to “link” up, he might declare “Now we're putting it all together,” even though the sitter is the one who is making it work.
      The main facets of the system are:  

      1. Readers use such phrases as “I think . . .” (or “I don't think . . .”). This is a way of “trying on” a guess for acceptance.  
      2. Readers simply ask for direct, factual information from the sitter which they say is a way to “help along” the process. The sitter is usually very willing to help.  
      3. Readers often say that they cannot differentiate between past, present, and future events and relationships, so that there are many more possibilities for “hits.”  
      4. Wide ranging of the sitter's imagination is not only expected by the mediums, but is encouraged. Sitters are told to be creative and try to make the reading fit.  
      5. There is a willing, eager collusion between the medium and the sitter, even if largely unconscious on the part of the sitter.

      Cold reading isn't necessarily learned in a series of lessons. Though classes in “spiritual development” are sometimes offered by mediums and are understood, both by teacher and students, to have been designed to enhance their awareness of the survival-after-death philosophy, the lessons seem also to instruct the learners in how to extract certainties out of ambiguity. For example, trying to guess a word sealed in an envelope, students are encouraged to discover relationships between obscure ramblings and the word itself. A notion about walking down a road, for example, might be said to correctly relate to the concealed word “success” because “everyone seeks a path to success, and a path is a sort of road.” The words used are always general in nature (success, peace, happiness, sadness, longing, searching) rather than more definitive words like cat, hammer, Germany, or coffee.
      Most proficiency at cold reading is obtained by observing old masters of the trade and by trial and error. By looking over the reading that is recorded in Appendix I of this encyclopedia, an actual transcript from a tape recording of a thirty-minute professional reading wherein most of the procedures outlined here have been used, the reader can begin to understand the techniques. The methods of probing and backing up, laughing away failures and turning them into forgivable boo-boos, getting around long pauses in which the sitter fails to volunteer needed information, and blaming errors on the “poor spiritual wavelengths” all become clear with a little study.
      By means of cold reading, a proficient operator can readily convince a sitter that contact with a departed person has been firmly established. That's what it's really all about. The victims of the process are constantly encouraged to think of something that can “link” the very trite but tried-and-true phrases to any deceased (or living) person or past (or present) situation they can come up with or imagine. The vague language and the inevitable modifiers (possibly, maybe, perhaps) often offer many easy connections that can be arrived at.

[Encyclopedia Cover]

Click here to order a copy of the original hardcover edition of this Encyclopedia.

Copyright (C) 1995-2007 James Randi.

Created and maintained with the dictionary compilation software TshwaneLex.